Interfaith news - NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change - Los Angeles

Thanks to a friend I came across the following link on some great interfaith activism in Los Angeles

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Rebranding Interfaith, Parliament of World Religions, Blog

Inspired. Energized. Confused. Naïve.  I had asked a Jewish audience to share a single word to capture their thoughts of my presentation on Muslim-Jewish relations.  I had spent the last hour painting a picture of the broken communication between Jews and Muslims over the last 20 years – the public spats, the failed dialogues and the wounded relationships.  I devoted the last portion of the session to envisioning a more positive paradigm and cultivating the tools to get us there.

Some people entered the session eager to acquire the skills needed to strengthen relationships with the Muslims who share their city.  They had witnessed the breakdowns but refused to think of “Muslim-Jewish” as synonymous with “conflict.” They walked away from the session recharged.  Inspired.  Energized.

Others entered as skeptics, poised to dismiss interfaith work as a charming but ineffective effort to bridge an unbridgeable chasm of differences.   The cycle of conflict exists for a reason and those who champion engagement with the other don’t understand the threat to their own community.  Openness and vulnerability lead to exploitation.  Interfaith activists are unrooted. Confused. Naïve.

Those words may have felt cutting in the moment but they were also a gift.  It was early in my work as the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change though I had long been devoted to interfaith relations.  As someone who grew up with a mixed religious background, the importance of interfaith was engrained in my Jewish identity.  But my own experience blinded me to the experience of those for whom interfaith was not a self-evident good.  It was beyond my worldview that someone could see interfaith engagement not only as superfluous but as threatening.  I realized that I needed to take a step back and explain why the work matters in the first place.  More specifically, I needed to make a compelling case for why the work matters to them.

There is something that feels base about using the language of self-interest to undergird interfaith work.  I imagine that many of us find ourselves committed to interfaith activism because our highest ideals have led us down this path.  As someone who chose to become a rabbi to pursue a career in interfaith relations, I certainly felt compelled by the holiness of the endeavor.  My tradition demands it of me.  The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas captures my deeply held belief with his claim that we experience divine commandment through the face of the other.

But I am also in this line of work because I believe wholeheartedly that a commitment to interfaith relations and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular tangibly benefits the Jewish people.  This work is, as they say, “good for the Jews.”

As a teenager and young adult, I despised the “good for the Jews” cliché.  It seemed to be an excuse for isolation, a justification for turning a blind eye to the plight of others.  But those excuses represent a narrow interpretation of what is good.  Those justifications conflate that which is in our self-interest with that which is self-serving.

Asking whether something is “good for the Jews?” is actually a useful question.  As my colleagues in community organizing assert, acknowledging one’s self interest is the first important step to social change.

When I engage Jewish audiences now, I open by speaking to that self-interest.  I lay out the vast overlapping domestic agendas between the American Muslim and Jewish communities and spell out the missed opportunities for collaboration.  I articulate how changing demographics will impact Jewish community relations.  Jews are becoming a smaller proportion of the American population and we will need to rely more heavily on coalitions.  I cite how the younger generations of Jews understand “Jewish values” more universally than their parents did.  Interfaith activism thus has a role in engaging these generations’ Jewish identity.

No part of me imagines that I will transform every skeptic in an hour by framing Muslim-Jewish relations in terms of Jewish self-interest.  But I often see something click for Jewish audiences when I cite the 2010 Gallup poll that directly links anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  The single greatest predictor for whether someone holds Islamophobic beliefs is whether they also hold anti-Semitic beliefs.  This simple statistic reframes the issue from an abstract good to a concrete need.  Combating Islamophobia is not some altruistic endeavor for Jews rooted in the collective memory of our own historical persecution.  It is a strategic approach to prevent latent anti-Semitism from resurfacing today.

The rhetoric that we use to describe our work serves to undermine or enhance the power of our impact.  Early on, a supporter once described NewGround as “the ones getting everyone to love each other.”  She soon learned that this does not begin to capture what NewGround does.  We equip Jews and Muslims with the tools, space, and relationships to identify what matters to people in both communities– our fears, our values, our narratives and aspirations.  Sometimes, the conversation feels uncomfortable because interests do not always align (for example, we do not expect everyone to agree about how to handle the conflict in the Middle East). But the willingness to articulate what is at one’s core creates the foundation for a more honest and trusting partnership when there is alignment.  At NewGround, we are not the ones getting everyone to love each other.  We are the ones transforming intergroup relations in Los Angeles from a civic liability into a communal asset.

There will always be a core of people drawn to interfaith work for its more abstract ideals – people who need no convincing of interfaith’s inherent value.  But our goal ought to include preaching beyond the choir.  There is no shame in rebranding interfaith as savvy and strategic, substantive and smart.  Interfaith is all of these things and there is much to be gained by speaking of our work from this angle.  Those poised to call us naïve may instead walk away energized.  And those who thought us confused may instead find themselves inspired.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change.

New Ground's Fellowship

Every year, 20 Muslim and Jewish young professionals are selected for the fellowship to gain the skills, relationships and networks necessary to transform how Muslims and Jews relate to each other in the United States. Through a combination of evening programs and weekend retreat, fellows...

  • Enhance their skills in conflict resolution and communication
  • Explore the diversity of Muslim and Jewish communities
  • Learn about religious traditions and experiences of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
  • Practice and experience honest conversations about Israel-Palestine
  • Develop projects, programs, and volunteer opportunities to work for social change
  • Create partnerships between Jewish, Muslim and other civic organizations
  • Work to influence their communities, organizations and peers through presentations, programs, writing and other media.

Also see:

Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation

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Comment by Stewart Mills on June 6, 2012 at 11:19pm

I agree Tim - it is a great subject matter.  It would be great for mepeace online members to continue to look at constructive ways of dialogue.

Comment by Tim Upham on June 6, 2012 at 8:10pm

It is such a great subject matter, it has the potential to great people involved in it.  I will not submit any blogs, because it seems they are congested already.

Comment by Stewart Mills on June 6, 2012 at 12:39pm

Hi Tim, unfortunately that is the nature of blog posts - they get pushed off the home page as new blogs are added. I don't have any special knowledge or involvement with this group.  I only came across their work on the web and thought I would share it.  Please feel free to submit your own blogs along these lines.  I am unable to dedicate any time to mepeace at present.  It is great for those people who can contribute.  Peace Shalom Salam

Comment by Tim Upham on June 6, 2012 at 2:06am

This has remained sort of hidden, would you like to publicize it a little bit more?

Comment by Sergio Storch on April 29, 2012 at 5:47am

Dear Stewart, I loved this post. 

I´ve learned this week that in South Africa the two communities get along very well. 

I live in Brazil and have friends in a city where is a large share of the Moslem community. Jewish-Moslem dialogue here is very poor, maybe because neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia are big problems here, as both communities are relatively small. 

However, Brazil may have a unique role especially this year, because we´ll have the Rio+20 and the accompanying Peoples´ Summit in Rio, both in June, and because there are initiatives from joint Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to get more proactive involvement of Jewish and Arab communities in Latin America. 

More: we´ll have here the World Social Forum Free Palestine on Nov28-Dec01.

So I think it might be a good idea to draw your attention to help propel interfaith here, and have the result boomeranging back to your country. 

I suggest you consider having a delegation of at least one Jew and one Moslem to come to the Peoples´ Summit. What do you think about that? Maybe Rabbi Sarah Bassin would like to be one of them. Of course, if they come, we here would help in designing a whole tournée covering Rio, Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre (the place where the World Social Forum will take place), and meeting the respective Jewish and Moslem communities. Our government is also in search of opportunities of this kind to support.

So the opportunity is here, and you and Sarah may make a big difference. 

Check it here.



Comment by Tim Upham on April 21, 2012 at 9:31pm

I attended a Muslim-Jewish picnic at a state park along the Columbia River in Oregon.  It was organized by the Greater Islamic Society of Oregon, and the invitation was extended to three synagogues.  I loved it, it was wonderful experience.  Many of the people there, were from countries I have been to, so I got to reminisce with them.  When discussing anything political, it was about the situation between India and Pakistan, because many of the people there were from Pakistan.  For the Palestinians that were there, I got to practice my Arabic with them.  I mentioned to several people at that picnic that it the Siddur, it states "You will love your fellow man, as though you will love yourself."  So that is the reason why I attended, and I found out about this picnic at the last minute.  I would continue to see people from that picnic afterwards, and they would say to me "I remember you from the picnic."  That is the reason why I am involved with the Seeds for Peace program, because it is a camp where both Israeli and Palestinian teenagers come together to simply get to know each other.


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